Justice Delayed: USA vs. Sabre Tech

USA vs. Sabre Tech By Stephen P. Prentice Remember ValuJet? The DC9 that went down in the Everglades? The mechanics who worked for Sabre Tech and handled the oxygen generators? They were arrested and charged with criminal conduct. They were...

The criminal charges against the mechanics and the company included false statements on maintenance records; causing hazardous materials to be transported in air commerce; failing to properly package, label, and mark the materials; recklessly causing the transportation of the hazardous materials; failing to train employees in hazmat regulations; and willfully (intentionally) placing destructive devices on a plane, a part of the Aircraft Sabotage Act.

Sabre Tech's lawyers moved to dismiss the bulk of the indictment because the government had presented insufficient evidence to support the charges, among other grounds. All such motions were denied and the case went to trial.

The mechanics were acquitted by the jury of all charges. Sabre Tech was found guilty and sentenced to pay a fine of $2,000,000 and restitution of $9,060,040.

The appeal
Upon Sabre Tech's appeal the court had to wrestle with a technical argument made by Sabre Tech's lawyers that said, in effect, that recklessly causing the containers to be transported was not part of the law that the defendants were charged under. After a long and detailed examination the appeals court agreed.

Sabre Tech's very astute lawyers argued that the regulations it was convicted of recklessly violating were not enacted under the FAA regulatory system. These were regulations under the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act (HMTA) and this law penalizes only willful (intentional) violations of its regulations. The conclusion would have to be that the government improperly charged Sabre Tech and the mechanics with crimes. The appeals court concurred. Note that this same argument was proposed before and during the trial but was rejected by the trial judge.

Granted, this reversal was on a technical point, but that is what the law is all about. At the time of the ValuJet crash, criminal liability existed only for willful (intentional) violations of the hazmat rules. Sabre Tech was charged under the HMTA which contains no criminal liability for reckless conduct.

This accident should not have happened. Sabre Tech and its employees however did not intend to cause the death of the passengers on board Flight 592 when they packed and transported the oxygen canisters. The problem with the prosecutors case was that they did not do their homework. In their haste to get the case to the trial, they overlooked the fact that the regulations relied on to charge the crimes were in fact invalid as they were applied.

The appeals court set aside Sabre Tech's convictions on all of the reckless counts. These were, of course, the most serious. The only count left was the failure to train their employees on hazmat procedures.

The case was sent back to the trial judge for re-sentencing. The appeals court also said that at this point the court could not impose any restitution requirement.

The FAA case
Early last year Sabre Tech settled the FAA's case by agreeing to pay civil penalties (fines). The agreement reduced a civil penalty to $1,750,000 and dropped 10 of the 37 allegations regarding the company's handling of hazardous materials. At that time the FAA said that, "this civil penalty was the highest settlement they had for hazardous materials handling and reflects the seriousness of the case." The FAA also agreed not to pursue charges against Saberliner Corp. of St. Louis, Sabre Tech's parent company. Another good job by the defense!

Now after all of these legal actions are over, will the government get any money at all?

Sabre Tech is no longer in business. The FAA penalty will probably never be paid. It is doubtful that any of the fines ultimately imposed in the criminal case will ever be paid. Remember, in the FAA case the parent company could not be responsible for payment of any fines. It is doubtful that they could be reached in the criminal case as well.

So, in this case, the only ones to come out ahead are the lawyers and the bureaucrats. The taxpayers wind up footing the bill for what appears to be a fruitless pursuit. Loss of jobs and shutdown of the company appear to be the primary result of what was an unfortunate accident.

Was justice done? You make the call. AMT

Stephen Prentice Stephen P. Prentice is an attorney whose practice involves FAA-NTSB issues. He has an Airframe and Powerplant certificate, is an ATP rated pilot, and is a USAF veteran.
E-mail: aerolaw@att.net

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